Television

The Real Delaware County Is Nothing Like Mare of Easttown

The HBO hit goes down the checklist of Delco miseries, but leaves out the reasons they exist.

Side profile of Kate Winslet as Mare looking pensive, standing outside in a jacket
Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown. Michele K. Short/HBO

It takes only two episodes for HBO’s ambitious Mare of Easttown to tick off virtually every hardship associated with the quirky, underdog, salt-of-the-earth people of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. That bingo card from hell includes, among other miseries, substance abuse, untreated mental illness, teen pregnancy, violence, cramped row homes, dead-end jobs, and Roman Catholicism. Strangely, this plot-driven and escapist police procedural is mired in a grittiness that would typically kill the fun. And yet that authenticity has become the main appeal of the show, drawing rightful praise and even a parody on Saturday Night Live.

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I’ve taken a special interest in Mare, not simply because of the great performances and the unpredictable mystery, but also because I was born and raised in Drexel Hill, in the heart of Delco. Like many towns in the county, Drexel Hill grew rapidly in the late 20th century, largely because of white flighters stampeding out of Philadelphia, a group that included my own parents. And now, many decades later, Drexel Hill is at a crossroads, politically and demographically, as the region becomes more ethnically diverse and more progressive, against the wishes of many of the second- or third-generation white Christians who live there.

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Despite this obvious source of tension and upheaval, Mare of Easttown, puzzlingly, does not mention politics at all. There are no kitchen table arguments, no drunk know-it-alls pontificating at the numerous pubs, no campaign posters, no red hats, not even a chuckle-worthy moment of political incorrectness from Mare’s mother Helen. For a Delco kid like me, this deliberately apolitical stance isn’t just a missed opportunity; it makes watching the show a truly surreal experience.

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To get an idea of how deeply ingrained right-wing politics can be in this part of the country, look no further than the failed insurrection of Jan. 6. Southeastern Pennsylvania contributed some of the worst perpetrators of that awful day, many of whom were respected members of the community—and some of whom undoubtedly still are. Delaware County itself was controlled by Republicans from before the Civil War until 2019. Yes, it’s true that Delco shifted back to blue in 2020, helping to deliver a victory for Joe Biden. But the total numbers belie steep divisions that will hamper progress in the years to come.

This is a place where even a 13-year-old will calmly tell you that Black people moving into the neighborhood will bring property values down—and that it’s not racist to say that because everyone knows it’s true. It is a place that in many ways is still fighting a 1980s-style war on drugs, despite the terrible price such policies have exacted. And in the pandemic, Delco has become a hotbed of performative “civil disobedience” against lockdowns and mask ordinances, fueled in large part by resentment toward Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the growth of his party in the area. Here, being apolitical is a political decision.

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Yet here we have Mare Sheehan, a cop raised by a cop, and there is no mention of President You-Know-Who and all the related conflicts and debates—not so much as a lawn sign or a Back the Blue flag. Mare and the people around her are part of the demographic most likely to either overtly support Trump or give some rambling speech about how the country needs to reject two-party politics and be run like a business. (For an example of that more nebulous but still right-leaning position, I’m thinking of fellow Delaware County native Jamie Kennedy’s recent claim that he’s a “centrist” despite starring in an anti-abortion propaganda film. Classic Delco.)

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When Mare interacts with her gay daughter, or her college professor love interest, or her Black former classmate, or the town’s Black police chief (an embarrassingly recent thing in the whiter Delco neighborhoods), politics simply cease to exist. It’s as if the characters have been transported to some pocket universe where neither Trump nor Clinton won in 2016. And if Mare really is an outlier, a cop who leans to the left, then that would be a source of even greater tension. At the very least, the writers would need to dedicate an entire episode to an uncomfortable holiday dinner. (Come on, HBO. Give us a Mare of Easttown Christmas Special!)

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I’m certainly not rooting for the show to include more racism for the sake of authenticity, nor do I need any of the characters to get on a soapbox. But there is a case to be made that the stunted conservative politics of Delco, which the show dutifully avoids, have contributed to the very miseries that the show exploits. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, decades of Republican opposition to “big government” left Delaware County as “perhaps the most populous county in the county without its own health department.” Not coincidentally, Delco had one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections in the state over the past year, along with one of the lowest vaccination rates. I want to root for Mare, but it’s too easy to imagine her rolling her eyes at pro-vaxxers while sucking on her vape pen.

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I couldn’t help but think of that lack of infrastructure when pondering the fate of Erin McMenamin, the show’s central murder victim, whose unwanted pregnancy becomes a pivotal factor in her death. Last year, the film Never Rarely Sometimes Always depicted the cynical and dehumanizing treatment that poor teen mothers endure in small-town Pennsylvania. A brief mention of that hardship, and of the characters who endorse it, could have gone a long way in showing what Delco is really like.

My own high school class provides a more personal example. I graduated from Monsignor Bonner—Jamie Kennedy’s alma mater—in 1996, which means I would have had a crush on Mare in her basketball days. After coming of age in a solid conservative Christian environment, around 10 of my classmates are now dead from so-called despair deaths, beginning with a suicide in my senior year. The most recent occurred last Christmas. An all-boys school, Bonner cultivated an atmosphere of toxic masculinity long before that term became popular, and the effects linger. There, the obsession with pro-life politics often reached absurd levels. At Bonner, we did not observe Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. But around that same time of year, a student could get a holiday if he agreed to get on a bus and join the March for Life in Washington. To make things worse, our sex education included claims that condoms didn’t work, and that you could get a woman pregnant by dry humping her. “I know it’s true,” our teacher told us, “because I know someone who got pregnant that way.” To this day, out of a class of nearly 250 students, only one (to my knowledge) is gay and out of the closet, a bizarre statistic that, gee, I don’t know, might be linked to some of the sadness and frustration that members of my generation are dealing with.

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Even on a program about kidnappings and murder, the real Delaware County may be too depressing to depict. If someone wanted to create a show about the real Delco, they might consider skewing away from the exotic white people and their over-enunciated o’s. Instead, they could focus on an Asian American family running a local business near the 69th Street Terminal, for example, or a pioneering Black couple moving into Drexel Hill. Hell, I thought that the more interesting story in fictional Easttown would be about Chief Carter, the embattled Black police chief given the thankless job of finding a missing white girl in a town full of Trump supporters. Until someone has the vision to craft such a narrative, we can expect more content about sad white people who love the Iggles and goin’ down the shore, but who conveniently can’t seem to recall whom they voted for in 2016. Indeed, Mare of Easttown’s proudly apolitical stance might be the most Delco thing about it.

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